Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Double Life of "Sanction"

Sarah Palin's political opponents made hay out of her gaffe last Wednesday, when she said on Glenn Beck's radio show that "We gotta stand with our North Korean allies," when she meant "South Korean allies." Palin fought back with a Thanksgiving Facebook message that pointed to numerous slips of the tongue by President Obama. I don't find her "North Korean" error particularly remarkable (she was swiftly corrected by Beck, and she didn't confuse North and South Korea elsewhere in her remarks). I was more interested in what she said before that: "We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do." Was her use of sanction also erroneous?

News reports seemed to imply that Palin's use of sanction was a secondary gaffe. Huma Khan of ABC News reported:

It is unclear though whether Palin was then talking about sanctions against North Korea, or U.S. sanctioning — i.e., approving or supporting — its actions.

Similarly, Tucker Reals of CBS News wrote:

It's unclear whether she referenced the correct Korea and simply misused the term "sanction" — which, as stated, means to approve or validate, or if she meant to say South Korea, the U.S. ally, in reference to any actions that nation may take in retaliation to past or future attacks from the North.

Reals continued, "One might even have missed that gaffe, had she not said just seconds later: 'Obviously, we gotta stand with our North Korean allies.'" It's true that the subsequent "North Korean" flub muddies our interpretation of what Palin meant by sanction, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she really was talking about North Korea and not South Korea here. If, as the ABC and CBS reporters seem to insist, sanction can only mean "to approve," then it would appear that Palin said the opposite of what she meant.

Sanction, however, is one of those tricky words that can actually mean its opposite, depending on context. Some (but not all) dictionaries recognize the ambiguity of the verb: Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and Webster's New World only recognize a positive, approving meaning, while American Heritage, Oxford, and Random House allow that the verb can also mean "to penalize," which would fit Palin's usage.

A word that can encompass two opposing meanings has been variously called a "Janus-faced word," a "contronym," or an "auto-antonym." Another common example is cleave, which can mean either "separate" or "hold together." And as I wrote in Word Routes in 2008, the word subprime can either refer to a lending rate that is below the prime rate or above it, curiously enough.

The Janus-faced nature of sanction is more evident when it is used as a noun. Originally from a Latin verb meaning "to render sacred or inviolable," the noun sanction historically referred to the "action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In English, the word headed in two directions — one relating to legal or ethical rules, and one relating to penalties against infringing such rules. Since the eighteenth century, the verb formed from sanction has generally accorded with the positive sense, as when Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography of preserving "the very words of the established law, wherever their meaning had been sanctioned by judicial decisions."

As Robert Burchfield explained in his 1996 revision of Henry W. Fowler's Modern English Usage, the negative meaning of the verb as "penalize" did not arise until the mid-twentieth century. Burchfield wrote that examples of this sense are "sparse," and that "this new use, though logical enough as a parallel to the main current sense of the noun, has only debatable currency and acceptability in the standard language." Bryan Garner elaborated on this in his Modern American Usage: those who use the "penalize" sense (such as lawyers) are "likely to be misunderstood," so it is preferable to say "issue sanctions against" to make the disapproval unambiguous.

Palin was indeed misunderstood — at least by the ABC and CBS reporters, who perhaps consulted Webster's New World (the journalist's go-to dictionary) and found only the positive meaning of the verb sanction. But it would be entirely unfair to treat her usage as erroneous, since it can now be found frequently in journalistic writing. Take, for instance, the coverage of Rep. Charlie Rangel's ethical violations. (Rangel was found guilty of 11 violations by the House ethics committee and now faces a formal reprimand or more serious censure from the House as a whole.) A sampling:

The full committee is set to sanction Rangel tomorrow — imposing a punishment that could range from a reprimand to expulsion.
New York Daily News (Nov. 16)

Rep. Charlie Rangel offered a final plea to the House ethics committee Thursday before the panel convened a closed-door session to determine how to sanction the New York Democrat for his repeated violations of the chamber's rules.
Roll Call (Nov. 18)

Rangel, who rarely sticks to a script, released prepared remarks for a House ethics committee hearing that will decide how he should be sanctioned.
CNBC/AP (Nov. 18)

Charlie Rangel Sanctioned By House Ethics Committee
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov. 18)

Rangel would be the first lawmaker sanctioned by the full House since Ohio Democrat Jim Traficant was expelled in 2002.
Bloomberg (Nov. 18)

In fact, the "penalize" meaning of sanction was used two years ago referring to Palin herself: during the flap in Alaska over the "Troopergate" scandal, USA Today reported that "lawmakers don't have the authority to sanction her for such a violation."

Fair is fair: if it's acceptable for reporters to use sanction in this way to discuss the penalties faced by Rangel, it should be equally acceptable for Palin to use it when talking about international sanctions placed on North Korea. No need to have a repeat of Refudiate-Gate!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 29th 2010, 12:28 AM
Comment by: Steve V.
I agree.
Monday November 29th 2010, 6:09 AM
Comment by: Barbara E. (St. Johnsbury,, VT)
Its obvious that Sarah Palin's mastery of English is bankrupt. Even the structure of her sentence was totally incorrect, much less its etymoligical and/or dictionary meaning. Anyone who understands sentence structure etc knows this is a convoluted attempt to speak the native language. No need for three paragraphs of analysis. It's sheer ignorance spiced with hutzpah.
Monday November 29th 2010, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
What she said!
Monday November 29th 2010, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Ben, thank you for this article (and others)that alerts me to the fact that I may not know the broader scope of the use of words, particularly when the context seems to be contrary to the expected position of the user. I admit that the previous sentence may make it obvious that my mastery of English is bankrupt. Probably the sentence structure is totally incorrect. For those in the "know" surely it must reveal a convoluted attempt to write the native language. Its sheer ignorance must be breathtaking. Nevertheless, it is not spiced with chutzpa. It is amazing that the mention of the name of someone who was not even known to most liberals two years causes an immediate kneejerk, foaming at the mouth reaction. (The mixing of metaphors is intentional.)
Monday November 29th 2010, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Penny N. (Weston, MA)
Sanction is indeed a tricky word. What would it mean if a parent said to a teenager proposing to go out to an all-night party, "I won't sanction that kind of behavior?" No punishment for going, or no parental blessing?
Monday November 29th 2010, 9:14 AM
Comment by: patricia H.
Once again Sarah Palin exposes her ignorance.
Monday November 29th 2010, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I entered ‘past participle of sancire’ on internet and, in ‘The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories’, a most interesting book, I found that:

“The Latin verb ‘sancire’, related to ‘sacer’, was used in the sense ‘to render sacred or inviolable’. The past participle of ‘sancire’ is ‘sanctus’, which is the root of several English words, including ‘saint’, ‘sanctify’, ‘sanction’, and ‘sanctuary’“

Thank you for sending us to the dictionaries again (as you did not mention the Latin verb). And I am saying it with all sincerity as I adore anything to do with words.

Now, in your example
"We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do."

It seems to me that “what it is” implies that the policy will have to have some rules, therefore the policy will sanction the rules (North Korea should follow), and because the word ‘rules’ is omitted the sentence might seem ambiguous as sanction might be understood as both authorize and penalize:

"We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction (authorize) what it is that North Korea is going to do."

"We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction (penalize) what it is that North Korea is going to do."

However, it seems to me, in the second instance, that penalizing someone now for what that someone is going to do in the future does not have much sense, compared with penalizing someone now for what that someone has done, which makes sense.

Would I have to understand that sanction was meant as penalize, then a rephrasing would be necessary such as "We're not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction (penalize) North Korea actions.”

Nevertheless, as I understand it, “what it is that North Korea is going to do” implies that the policy should specify some rules North Korea should follow, therefore it seems to me that a rephrasing such as “to sanction the rules related to what it is that North Korea is going to do”, in which ‘the rules related’ is introduced, would have been clearer.
So I think that because of the use of ‘is going to do’ in the sentence (which I understand as the rules North Korea will have to follow in accordance with the policy) what was said is neither a gaffe, nor sanction can be understood as penalty, but rather as authorizing (the rules, rules that might include both penalties for what has been already done, and rules as guidelines to be followed, a case in which sanction would have to be understood as having both meanings simultaneously).
Monday November 29th 2010, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Back in 2008, when a politician some folks liked used 'nonplussed' to mean 'nonchalant', many people defended it as an example of the evolutionary nature of a living language. Today, they are heard lamenting the 'ignorance' of another politician - one they don't like - who has apparently accepted both the general principle, and the specific example of it in the mutation of meaning of 'sanction'.

In his novel, The March, EL Doctorow wrote, "Language is war by other means"; clearly for some folks, that is equally true about political discourse. The observation that truth is the first casualty of war is no less true in this case.

Ben, thanks for illuminating the battlefield with the light of reason and careful analysis.
Monday November 29th 2010, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Janet D.
Thank you for journalists that sanction has two meanings. That Sarah Palin fractures English needs no analysis.
Monday November 29th 2010, 11:08 AM
Comment by: John S.
Just reading Sarah's words, it seems to me that she uses sanction to mean stop North Korea from doing something. It sounds to me like she is saying that she does not believe the current administration is strong enough to take action to stop North Korea. This would seem to be yet another ambiguous misuse of the word.
Monday November 29th 2010, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Carolyn .
The fact that Sarah Palin was quick to agree with the correction tells me that she didn't understand what she, herself, had just said! She probably was 'briefed' by someone else before the appearance. She makes a lot of 'off the cuff' remarks. For example, during the promo commercial for her series on Alaska, she says she'd prefer to be "out there' instead of being "stuck in an office or behind a desk' - one of the two statements. Guess what? That where you have to be to run a state or a country! I've tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I don't see a genine interest and curiosity to know and understand 'critical' information in order to use critcal thinking in conversation or when writing about anything that's out of her comfort zone. Here I refer to critical thinking as the ability to use facts and knowledge to express thoughts that demonstrate her understanding(and comfort) with the topic, and build on the basic facts. She is fast and loose with facts, and appears not to have read her Bible which says that we are to pray for our leaders which God has placed in office.
Monday November 29th 2010, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Re: during the promo commercial for her series on Alaska, she says she'd prefer to be "out there' instead of being "stuck in an office or behind a desk' - one of the two statements. Guess what? That where you have to be to run a state or a country!

Yes, that's true. You need the office to run a company, a city, a state, or a country. And I think Palin has done the first three.

She was talking off the cuff, and not in anger. Such mistakes as were made then might be expected from those of us who, unlike many of the commenters here, are somewhat less than perfect.

Suppose the speaker's name had been something like Morris, or Gore. I heard the bearer of the former of those names totally misquote someone on Bill Maher's show, totally missing the point and mistating facts.

Seems to me that the latter name has been associated with some misspeaking as well.

I guess we just have to get use to this. Your political stance determines how acceptable what you say, the way you say it, and your feelings expressed will be.

Pity... the substance might have been important, and missed -- oops, by some.
Monday November 29th 2010, 2:43 PM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
Re. Barbara E's comment. It should be "chutzpah", not "hutzpah.
Tuesday November 30th 2010, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Carolyn .
Re: Yes, that's true. You need the office to run a company, a city, a state, or a country. And I think Palin has done the first three.

Maybe we are talking about two differenrt people. Sarah Palin quit the position as governor, and the only company I'm aware of is her current business of self promotion. I find hypocracy annoying. I go to places like the fact check website that is non partisan to make sure I understand what is being said and if it is correct. No politician is perfect, but she can strive to be honest and correct. She needs to ask herself 'What would Jesus do?', then do it.
Friday December 30th 2016, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Scott N. (TX)
It has always irritated me that it could mean opposite things but going back to the original meaning now I see how that could have happened. It further irritates me because it is one of those words the media insists on using EVERY TIME. Like they have the obsession with using "tapped" EVERY TIME some politician chooses someone for a position. Can't you just say "choose"? "Select"? Maybe mix it up a little?

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